Research partnership with police and child welfare yields data and tools to protect local girls

York University researchers have conducted a first-of-its-kind study involving sex trafficking of girls with child welfare involvement in York Region. In a unique partnership with York Regional Police and York Region Children’s Aid Society (CAS), the team used police case files and child welfare involvement information as data to help understand the warning signs and elevated risk status of child welfare involved youth who are victimized by sex traffickers, explore their routes into trafficking and begin developing tools to identify and ultimately prevent high-risk youth from being trafficked.

Despite being under reported, sex trafficking is a widespread and growing crime in Canada, with most victims being children and youth, some as young as 14. Young people involved with child welfare systems, especially girls, are vastly over represented among trafficking victims and are often targeted through recruitment and grooming strategies.

Jennifer Connolly
Jennifer Connolly

“Trafficking is happening in our own backyard,” said Jennifer Connolly, Chair of York’s Psychology Department and head of the Teen Relationships Lab at the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research. “Sometimes we think from TV that this is something that happens to women and girls in foreign countries, but our research says that it’s happening right here in Ontario.”

Connolly, along with graduate students Kyla Baird and Kyla McDonald, were invited to conduct this research by York Regional Police, in collaboration with the York Region CAS, out of the agencies’ deep concern for how trafficking is affecting girls in their community. While the police had a dedicated unit committed to tackling the issue, they sought a better understanding of the problem and how to both address and prevent it.

In their study titled “Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in a Southern Ontario Region: Police File Review Exploring Victim Characteristics, Trafficking Experiences, and the Intersection With Child Welfare,” published in the most recent volume of the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, the researchers gathered much-needed data for a local Canadian perspective on a topic that has previously depended on American data and definitions.

“Contrary to what we see in the media, girls aren’t being recruited elsewhere and brought here from another country,” explained Baird, the study’s author, noting that the files the team reviewed primarily involved girls from York Region being trafficked around the Greater Toronto Area.

Kyla Baird
Kyla Baird

Data in this area has been lacking in part due to underreporting, often a result of the complex nature of relationships trafficked women and girls find themselves in. These relationships are exploitative with identifiable power imbalances and victims commonly experience violence and manipulative control. However, the relationships are often complicated by a victim’s romantic attachment to their trafficker, making them similar to a romantic relationship with intimate partner violence. This may prevent a woman or girl from seeing themselves as a victim of a crime and from wanting to testify against their trafficker.

This new study provided valuable insight into these relationships, as well as into the online methods modern traffickers used to recruit and groom young women. “They’re targeting locations where young people are spending the majority of their time,” explained Baird, who received a 2017 Nelson Mandela human rights Canada Graduate Scholarship for her work in this area. “Historical data shows recruitment taking place in locations such as malls. More and more it’s happening online where youth are spending more of their unmonitored time. Traffickers are just keeping up to date with the times and going where the kids are.”

Research suggests early identification of high-risk status youth should be a priority for child welfare agencies, and that professionals working with youth should be knowledgeable about risk, recruitment by traffickers and warning signs of victimization.

The study is already gathering attention in the youth-serving community. Baird was recently invited by Practice and Research Together (PART) – a Canadian organization whose mandate is to disseminate research to child welfare workers across the country – to present a webinar on the risk factors of child welfare involved youth, warning signs of exploitation and how agencies can identify and support at-risk and victimized youth in care.

“Often times as researchers we are disseminating our findings to other researchers,” said Baird. “We’re not often given the opportunity to present our findings to the people we’re doing the research for.”

The York researchers have also explored the unique ways in which child welfare-involved youth are recruited within the child protection system, in settings like group homes and foster homes, and are working with York Region CAS and Simcoe-Muskoka Family Connections to assist in developing therapeutic foster homes for underage girls who have been trafficked. PART has expressed interest in future seminars based on this research.